The notion 20 years ago that Birmingham might one day become as well known for fine restaurants as it once was for metal-bashing would deservedly have been greeted with hoots of derision.
Even today, despite the largest number of Michelin stars outside of London, haute cuisine is hardly the first thing that springs to mind when the word Birmingham crops up in conversation. That this city has so far been unable to escape from its unfortunate image says more about a failure of marketing and the natural understatement of its citizens than it does about the quality of the lifestyle offer to be found here.
As our restaurant critic reveals today, a mouth-watering cascade of fine restaurateurs happens to be heading this way over the next few months. A second outlet for Glynn Purnell, Jamie Oliver at the Bullring and Carluccio’s at Brindleyplace, will go a long way to building up a critical mass of high quality dining.
It is particularly important that this should be happening at the moment, as Birmingham faces up to a savage downturn in public sector spending.
Post-recession growth will be driven almost exclusively by the private sector, and there may be significant opportunities for cities that can portray themselves as good locations for companies seeking to move from London and the South-east, or to foreign firms searching for corporate headquarters in the UK.
In many respects Birmingham is fortunate to have a cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture who is fully in tune with the importance of ensuring that cities are attractive places for people to relax and enjoy themselves in as well as centres of industry and commerce. Councillor Martin Mullaney is a rare breed in local government circles – someone who is passionate, hard-working and full of positive ideas. He wants to make changes and is intent on doing so.
The usual cynics will no doubt mock his wish to turn Centenary Square into the equivalent of New York’s Lincoln Centre, an impressive mix of fine public and cultural buildings. But he has grasped the fact that when the economy picks up, as it will, Birmingham is likely to be in an enviable position to press ahead with city centre regeneration on a scale unseen for decades.Projects on the scale of Arena Central, the redevelopment of Paradise Circus and Martineau Galleries remain in the starting blocks at the moment, but the potential exists to transform the city centre.
To quote Coun Mullaney, culture can act as an important driver for regeneration. The Birmingham Conservatoire is a prime example, having been encased in a building of such supreme ugliness that few passers-by would ever suspect that here lies a centre of musical excellence that is the envy of many other cities.
If the Conservatoire can be re-housed in a striking new building, perhaps in Broad Street opposite the new civic library, the result will be to further underscore Birmingham’s fine cultural offering.
The City of Culture title passed us by, as did the Capital of Culture crown. But these contests are fairly meaningless in themselves. Birmingham should remember where it once was, and take heart from where it now is.